Doom and Civilization might not seem like the most comfortable of bedfellows. But Solium Infernum, the underground PC classic from 2009, takes the blood and demons of id Software’s FPS, and combines it with the politicising and tactics of the definitive Firaxis strategy game. And now it’s getting a massive, triple-A remake – Solium Infernum has never looked better, and it’s strategy with a scheming, psychological twist.
Strategy games often have a specific idea of what “strategy” means. It’s the strategy of correctly choosing where to build, shrewdly and efficiently accumulating resources, and using them, in-turn, to tactically deploy military units. But, in what’s often presented as a generations-long conflict between civilisations – a grand opera of technology, culture, and martial prowess – one particular form of strategy is commonly neglected, or under utilised when it comes to narrative and mechanics.
I fancy myself, basically, as a thinker; a master manipulator; a psychological tactician who uses politics, negotiation, and deceit (in strategy games, at least) to get what I want through subtle Machiavellian manoeuvring. I still want a good war from time to time. I want to engineer my empire into becoming bigger, richer, and more architecturally imposing. But when it comes to dealing with my strategy game opponents, I’d prefer to defeat them using wits and words.
“Where a lot of games spend 80 percent of the time on the board and 20 percent on diplomacy, we’re the inverse,” says Trent Kusters, co-founder of developer League of Geeks, and director on Solium Infernum, “We’re trying to capture Hell in a way you’ve never seen before in videogames.” Originally created in 2009, by a single developer, Vic Davis, Solium Infernum has become an underground cult classic among PC strategy gamers, renowned for its in-depth military and political tactics, and vivid depiction of a Hell where bureaucracy, honour, and a constantly infighting demonic conclave are kings. League of Geeks, which previously developed the digital board game Armello, is taking all the principles and basics of Davis’ Solium Infernum, and remaking it from the ground up as an ambitious, triple-A strategy game.
The fundamental premise is the same – Lucifer, ruler of Hell, has gone missing, leaving his servile “archfiends” to squabble and battle over the infernal throne. Otherwise this is a completely modern take on a PC stalwart.
Visually, Solium Infernum is a classical, almost romantic vision of Hell, lifted from the works of Dante and Henry Milton. Rather than fire, brimstone, and roving hordes of snarling demons, there are towering steeples of white marble, organised units of soldiers and praetors, and a twisted sense of society and order – the conclave itself resembles a Roman senate, with the archfiends more like selfish, venal politicians than bloodthirsty beasts.
It doesn’t look like Doom, but at the same time, it has a distinctive style away from Civilisation or Age of Empires, a vibrant clash of reds, blacks, and sulfuric oranges that makes Solium Infernum pop off the screen. The map is different, too. Consistent again with Dante’s Inferno, the geography of Hell is unbound by the physical rules of reality. Your enemy might be mounting their army to your west, but if you scroll far enough, you’ll find the same troops gathering in the east.
“It’s this classical notion of Hell,” says Kusters. “The map loops north to south, west to east, so in our Hell, no matter where you start, you are always surrounded. You can’t put your back up against the wall. It also uses a simultaneous turn structure, so as I take my turn you take your turn. We don’t know what each other is doing.” Watching Kusters play, all of these systems – the bureaucracy, the claustrophobic, looping map, and the unknowable nature of each players’ turns – create a grand sense of a power struggle and paranoia.
Each playable archfiend has five different abilities, essentially military might, Machiaevllian smarts, dark magic, resource gathering, and political influence. You’ll need to call on all of them in order to win the game, which you can achieve either by earning a higher reputation or “prestige” level than your opponents, or by capturing the capital of Hell, Pandemonium, and holding it for five turns. Kusters has their own strategy. Besieged by Astaroth, Hell’s mightiest general, and the designated brute force-style archfiend, they promise that in just a handful of turns, they can change the tide of the game without entering a single battle, or shedding a drop of blood.
Kusters starts by going to the infernal conclave and demanding a tribute, in the form of cash and resources, from one of the other archfiends. This gives their opponent two choices: either accept the deal, and give Kusters what they want, or refuse, and be cast into a “vendetta”, basically a state of war which would give Kusters carte blanche to enter the opponent’s territory and cause trouble. Faced with that ultimatum, the rival concedes the resources, allowing Kusters to conjure a spell that allows them to stealthily and harmlessly steal something from one of their enemies.
Earlier in the game, Kusters used another type of magic to reveal that one of their rivals owned a special artefact – an artefact that could be used to summon a unique, colossal unit called a titan. With their new spell, constructed using the resources from the conclave, Kusters pilfers this artefact and brings it back to their own base.
At this point, another archfiend officially insults Kusters in front of the conclave, and again they’re presented with a choice. If Kusters responds to the insult, they will enter a vendetta with their opponent. This can either be settled through full-scale war, or, more deliciously, trial by combat – in a completely separate minigame, Kusters and their opponent can each choose their mightiest praetors to fight one-on-one in defence of the rulers’ honour. It’s a tantalising prospect, but Kusters has other plans. Though it hurts their prestige level, they simply withstand the public insult, and quietly return to their subterfuge.
Astaroth is still banging on the door, and the armies of another archfiend are closing from the east (and west, thanks to the looping map). With little by way of a military, Kusters needs to assert power and get everyone to back off without pleading, negotiating, and betraying their vulnerability. And the key is that stolen artefact. Utilising its power, Kusters summons a titan, which towers over the game map and makes Astaroth’s legions suddenly appear puny. It isn’t ordered to attack – Kuster simply saunters into the conclave; metaphorically, as it were, nods towards the titan; and all the other archfiends meekly agree to step back from the borders.
Through shrewd politics, knowing when to fight and when to bargain, and a kind of Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction – set your armies on me, I’ll set my titan on you – Kusters has swung the battle for Hell back in their favour. It’s very smart and sneaky, but even then, it could have been slicker.
“There’s a scheme you can select before the game even starts called Power Behind the Throne,” Kusters explains. “Say we’re playing together and you’re Astaroth, I can select Power Behind the Throne, nominate you, and if you win while I’m a vassal of yours, I win instead. You think I’m helping you win, but when the game ends and the result screen comes up, you see I betrayed you, and I won instead.” Hell, it seems, really is other people.
Although, it doesn’t have to be. Solium Infernum can be played against AI opponents, or, if you’re pushed for time, can still be played PvP but over a course of weeks. The turn structure is asynchronous. This means that, rather than four or five people needing to be online all at once, like an old-fashioned game of postal chess, you can log in when you have ten minutes spare, complete your turn, and then log back out. The game then passes to your opponents, who make their turns whenever they can, and so on and so on. It makes the game more accessible, but also gives you that extra time to plot and scheme – when Solium Infernum launches in 2023, I can see myself investing in a cork board, notice pins, and several metres of coloured string, maybe even a pair of plastic devil horns to complete that paranoid ruler of Hell look. That’s the kind of strategy I’ve always wanted, and Solium Infernum looks to deliver my devious, conniving dream.
If you can’t wait for Solium Infernum, you might want to try out some of the other best grand strategy games. There are also the best management games and city-building games, which offer their own take on Hell in the form of managing taxes and bin collection.